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New thriller breaks into the Federal Reserve

Matthew Quirk’s “The Directive,” a sequel to his bestselling novel “The 500,” imagines a heist to steal billions from a trading desk at the Federal Reserve. Jeffrey Brown talks to Quirk about how he researched the high-stakes break-in.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: a very different take on the Federal Reserve Bank from the perspective of a con man looking to steal billions.

    Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Robbing a bank without touching any gold in the vault, and not just any bank, but the biggest one going, the Federal Reserve. It's a heist that hinges on, yes, monetary policy, told in a new thriller about a Washington lawyer who can't shake his criminal past.

    "The Directive" is a sequel to the bestseller "The 500."

    And author Matthew Quirk joins me now.

    Welcome to you.

    MATTHEW QUIRK, Author, "The Directive": Oh, thanks for having me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, you were thinking where is the biggest — what's the biggest heist I could concoct, what's the most money around?

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Yes.

    You quickly come to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It has about $250 billion worth of gold in the basement. And what was really interesting for me was at the New York Fed, the real money is upstairs. And there's a trading desk there that is not very well-known.

    And it acts almost as the Federal Reserve system's gas and brake for the entire economy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You say the real money, because there's the gold and then what you're talking about is information in a way that's being traded.

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Right. Right.

    That trading desk has balance sheet of $4.5 trillion. And it backs the value of all of our currency. The dollars in your pocket are Federal Reserve notes. And so when the Fed, acting on behalf of the government, decides to speed up or slow down the economy, they actually send orders to that trading desk, called the Directive, and they go out and sort of drive the economy where the Fed wants it to be.

    So, if you were privy to that information, you could stand to make a killing without actually having to go in and put on the turtlenecks and grappling hooks and all that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Federal Reserve, which we of course cover all the time on this program, but it is so famously opaque, right?

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I remember William Greider wrote a book called "The Secrets of the Temple." We think of it as this sort of secretive temple.

    Alan Greenspan famously would say things that were intended to not be understood, right?

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So how did you find your way in?

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Well, I did a lot of research and reporting on it.

    I used to be a reporter. And that's the best way to procrastinate when you're writing a book. So I called around. I spoke to some people who worked at the Fed and on the desk. And I worked with for the heist these security experts. And they're called red teams or penetration testers.

    And it's a really interesting profession, because their job is to attempt to break into secure corporate or government facilities and…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    To figure how it can be done.

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Right. So, it was great, because I said, help me break into the Fed. And they gave me all these tricks of the trade.

    And it was very different than what I thought it would be, a real 21st century heist. And it revolved a lot more around essentially confidence games and gaining people's trust.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, I mean, that's the interesting part, is you are dealing with the digital world, you're dealing with information that milliseconds matter, right, and yet so much of it goes back to, when you are writing about a heist, social context, social networks, human interaction.

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Yes. Right, and just confidence and seeming like you belong.

    So, at the end of all that, I went up to the Fed really just to do some firsthand research and to take the tour. But I was waved through some of the mantraps, these sort of security gates at the front.

    And I found myself on an elevator full of employees. And I said, well, I will give this stuff a try. And there was no key control on the elevator. And I press nine, the floor with a desk, which I was very interested in. And I found myself rising up to the heart of the Fed.

    So, it was one of those moments where I said, oh, this is great. And then I said, what am I doing? This isn't in a novel. And I sort of poked my head out and looked around and then went back to where I…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And it didn't look like probably the most exciting place where all these billions of dollars…

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    No.

    It's so funny, because they really — they control the monetary supply there. And it's eight to 10 guys. And they're just sitting quiet office. And it's really the heart of how the Fed can keep the economy on a steady course.

    But, yes, it's a quiet place. And once you get past all the gun and the mantraps, it look like any other office or bank.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, there's the technology, there's the social interaction, but then there's just old-fashioned picking of locks, right, which you get into.

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Yes. Yes. I learned to pick locks for the book from some of these…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You learned?

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Yes.

    And it's remarkably easy. It's scary easy. As soon as I ordered the picks — and anyone can buy them — I just opened the front door of my house in a few seconds.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Yes. It was really scary.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, be careful what you find out as novelist.

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Right. The research is a lot of fun. And it comes in handy sometimes, too.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me just ask you finally, what is it about the heist that continues — in books, in thrillers, in movies that continues to grab people? It seems they just — they continually come before us.

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, somehow, people remain interested.

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    It's such a great genre. It has a set formula. And you're guaranteed action. And there's always a little bit of technology and some colorful characters and some close calls.

    And with this one, I was really glad that I could do a heist and get the suspense that I love in these sort of books, but also touch on something larger and hopefully leave readers with a few things they might not have known before about the Fed and how that system works.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the new book is "The Directive."

    Matthew Quirk, thank you.

  • MATTHEW QUIRK:

    Oh, thank you.

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